The Niangua Hydroelectric Generating Station, nestled along the winding Niangua River in Missouri, faced a significant challenge. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) expressed its desire for Show Me Power, the owner of the dam, to bulldoze the structure. FERC believed that removing the dam would be beneficial for various reasons. However, Show Me Power firmly believed in preserving the dam and the many benefits it provided.
The Niangua River basin had a rich history, with white settlers gradually establishing their presence after the Louisiana Purchase. The rugged landscape supported small bottom farms, timber cutting, and the construction of water power grist mills. In the early 1900s, the potential for hydroelectric power on the Niangua River captured attention, particularly at a site where a natural tunnel could provide an artificial fall of water for a hydraulic turbine.
The site, located in Camden County, offered picturesque views and geological wonders. A small city was built, and construction of the dam commenced, employing around 350 workers. A new tunnel was driven through the hill, and concrete was transported to the dam and powerhouse via chutes. Over time, the Niangua Hydraulic Generating Station was completed and began operation in 1930.
The dam itself was a gravity type, designed to create a forty-foot head. It consisted of a rock anchored concrete spillway section, a rock and earth filled embankment, and a steel sheet-pile supported concrete core wall. The resulting reservoir covered an irregular area upstream, spanning approximately 2 1/4 miles and reaching a depth of 10 to 20 feet at low water stage. The generating plant, located east of the reservoir, harnessed the maximum head through a concrete lined tunnel and surge chamber.
The generating equipment, powered by S. Morgan Smith water wheels, included two Allis-Chalmers vertical generators. These generators, with a capacity of 1875 KVA each, operated at 327 RPM under the 40-foot head. Flowage rights were acquired by Show Me Power through the purchase of several tracts of farm land, along with water rights from various interests in Laclede and Camden Counties.
Despite its smaller size compared to modern hydro and thermal generating units, Tunnel Dam still played a role in meeting peak energy demands and offering production efficiencies. Show Me Power emphasized the dam’s significance as a unique engineering marvel, and it was recognized as such in a survey of historical engineering sites in Missouri.
FERC’s desire to demolish the dam clashed with Show Me Power’s commitment to preserving it. Show Me Power firmly believed in the dam’s value. The company was determined to advocate for the continued existence Niangua Dam, highlighting its historical, importance to the region.